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"KUN" 2003 Obituary


KUNG o@ca.on.york_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2003-03-31 published
Scholar was 'hooked' on religion
Director of Centre for Religious Studies at the University of Toronto was lauded for important introductory works
By Ron CSILLAG Special to The Globe and Mail Monday, March 31, 2003 - Page R7
Like members of the clergy and their early epiphanies, scholars of religion can often pinpoint the instant they decided to pursue their calling.
For Willard OXTOBY, one of the world's foremost students of comparative religion and founding director of the University of Toronto's Centre for Religious Studies, a defining moment came at the tender age of five, when his father, a teacher of Old Testament at a Presbyterian seminary, taught his son to memorize the 23rd psalm, in Hebrew. One night, while an advanced Hebrew class met at the Oxtoby home, young Willard was summoned, in his pyjamas, to recite the psalm.
"See?" his father told the class. "Even a kid can do Hebrew, so get on with it."
A decade later, another breakthrough: While accompanying his father on a preaching visit, the elder OXTOBY recounted one of Jesus's parables, and then interrupted his exposition to say, "Of course that was just a story. Can a thing be true that never happened?"
About a year before his March 6 death in Toronto of colon cancer at age 69, the son remembered the father's blunt words as a turning point: "I can still recall the colour of paint on the wall at that instant. And thanks to the right question coming at the right time in my life, I've never had a problem personally handling the symbolic dimensions of religion."
He did more than merely handle. Through over 40 years of probing, analyzing, observing and writing in quantities that left colleagues astonished, Prof. OXTOBY bequeathed a legacy of scholarship that's been described as passionate and exuberant. From Anabaptism to Zoroastrianism, he dove headlong into all the world's major and minor religious traditions and had the ability, so often demonstrated, of connecting the dots between them.
"His command of detail was amazing," eulogized his former student, Alan SEGAL, who now teaches Jewish studies at Barnard College in New York, "all with specific knowledge of how it made religions fit together and help explain what religion was all about."
A fixture at the University of Toronto's religion department for 28 years, Prof. OXTOBY was a vocal proponent of interfaith dialogue, believing, as his friend, the Swiss Catholic renegade Hans KUNG, that there will be no peace on the planet until there is peace among its inhabitants' religions. In the specific case of Islam, he called for the need to understand the faith's diversity: "Lumping people of any group together, as if they're all alike, is one basic strategy of prejudice."
Prof. OXTOBY knew his share of grief -- he was twice married and twice widowed -- but he never lost his own footing. "He was optimistic and curious about everything until his final day, " said his son David, an executive with Ontario Power Generation Inc.
Willard Gurdon OXTOBY was born July 29, 1933, in Kentfield, Calif., just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, into a family of scholars. Both his father and grandfather were ministers and teachers of the Old Testament, and he spent a year between high school and college accompanying his father on a sabbatical to Europe and the Middle East. "I was hooked," he would recall. "The world of the Bible, both its archeology and its current events, came alive vividly."
After graduating from Stanford University with a degree in philosophy, he completed masters and doctoral degrees within a year of each other at Princeton, specializing in pre-Islamic Arabic inscriptions. In 1958, he married Layla JURJI, the daughter of one of his Princeton professors, and the couple spent two years in Jerusalem, with Prof. OXTOBY as part of the team that studied the Dead Sea Scrolls.
His first teaching job was in Montreal, where he launched McGill University's inaugural course on Judaism. But after a few years, he realized he needed to explore the influence of modern-day Iran on the religion of the Hebrews following their Babylonian exile. He returned to school, this time to Harvard, to study Zoroastrianism, an ancient faith born in Persia, possibly the world's first monotheistic religion. So expert would he become that he was made an honorary member of the Zoroastrian Society of Ontario.
He taught at Yale University for five years before accepting a full professorship at the University of Toronto's Trinity College in 1971, a relationship that would last until his retirement in 1999. In between were a slew of visiting professorships, appointments, awards and fellowships, and authorship of dozens of entries for dictionaries and encyclopedias on world religions.
Reprising his travels with his father, Prof. OXTOBY took his wife and teenage son and daughter, Susan, on an around-the-world sabbatical beginning in 1976 to study Zoroastrians in the diaspora. The clan lived in London, India and southeast Asia. The experience "definitely changed my perspective on the transient nature of North American culture," recalled Susan, director of programming at Cinematheque Ontario.
Cancer claimed Prof. OXTOBY's first wife in 1980. The following year, he married Julia CHING, a Shanghai-born onetime Catholic nun and formidable scholar of Chinese religions and neo-Confucian philosophy. The two formed an academic partnership at University of Toronto that produced a slew of monographs and articles, before cancer took Prof. CHING in October, 2001.
Prof. OXTOBY was probably best known for two introductory volumes he edited, World Religions: Western Traditions and World Religions: Eastern Traditions, in which he wrote chapters on Christianity, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism and general entries. Both have been hailed for their lucidity -- examples of his ability to render complex matters accessible without dumbing them down. He was working on a condensed, one-volume version of the books at the time of his death, along with a multitude of other projects.
In all, he travelled to more than 100 countries and studied over a dozen languages, including Arabic, Ugaritic and Sanskrit.
He was fond of recounting several humorous firsts in his career: That he was ordained a Presbyterian minister without actually attending divinity school; that he gathered the inscriptional data for his dissertation in one day; and that he smuggled pork sausages into Israel.
A deeply religious man personally and a biblical scholar too, Prof. OXTOBY never thought of himself as anything other than a Christian -- but as a comparatavist, never an exclusivist: "At no time have I ever supposed that God could not also reach out to other persons in their traditions and communities as fully and as satisfyingly as He has to me in mine," he concluded in his 1983 book, The Meaning of Other Faiths. "My Christianity, including my sense of Christian ministry, has commanded that I be open to learn from the faith of others."
He extended that openness to his own funeral: "He wanted it to be non-eucharistic," his son David said. "He wanted everyone to feel welcome."
Prof. OXTOBY even had a snappy comeback to pious Christians who asked whether he'd been saved: "Well, I'll be damned if I'm not."

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KUNZELMANN o@ca.on.york_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2003-07-07 published
POLACSEK, Erich Paul
Died of old age at 96 on Saturday, July 5, 2003, surviving spouse of 62-year marriage to Elise POLACSEK, father of Haide (William AIDE), Lise (Guther KUNZELMANN), Uta (Sergio MENDES), Eric (Sheelagh O'DONOVAN), Antje, Heliane (Michael HALL) and Martin; grandfather of Christopher M., Anya, Stephen, Shaun, Rachel, Daniel, Cornelia, Oliver, Tanya, Mark, Alexis, Christian, David, Orla, Thomas, Una, Christopher A., Ivan, Johann and Tobias; great-grandfather of Erin, Hilary, Catherine, Frances, Adriane, Eric, Jakob, Emma M., Sebastian and Emma G. Funeral Services at Christ the King Dietrich Bonhoeffer Lutheran Church, 149 Baythorne Drive, Thornhilll, Wednesday, July 9, 2003 at 2: 00 p.m. Interment at York Cemetery, Senlac Avenue, Toronto. Reception to follow at Church. Special thanks to all the caregivers on the 4th Floor at the York Central Hospital, Long Term Care Unit.

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